Even though I’ve made some complaints about the book in the past, after buying a copy at the library – for 50¢! – and rereading it the second time, I gotta admit this is a really good book. Tied with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it’s one of Dick’s best novels and it’s arguably the best alternate history novel of all time (eat your heart out Harry Turtledove).
Watch out – spoilers about!
You know the story: because America did not get involved in the war effort, the Allied powers lost World War 2. To add insult to injury, the Nazis and Imperial Japanese took over the US and split it in two. The story shows us what American life is like under German/Japanese rule in 1962.
That being said, 5 things went through my mind as I read The Man In the High Castle.
1. The Parallel World May Not Be So Different From Our World After All
Since most of the story takes place in the Japanese-owned Pacific States of America, it shouldn’t surprise us that there is a racial pecking order: the Japanese are the ruling class, white Americans are second class citizens, other people of color are described as faceless entities – the only time we see any Chinese Americans in the book, they’re pedecab drivers. Another time we see one black person, he’s a slave who has to abide by a curfew because slavery is legal again. One of the characters, Robert Childan, a man who sells old American artifacts to rich Japanese customers, tells us that illicit relationships between Japanese men and white women are commonplace, but it’s never the other way around. Another character, Nobosuke Tagomi, a trade official, walks into a diner, sees a group of white men at a counter and expects them to move from their stools when he tells them to. Sound familiar?
Whether this was Dick’s intention or not, the racism of the alternate timeline is not so different from the racism of our timeline. Just a reversal of skin colors. Even the Nazis’ “ethnic cleansing” of Africa in the book reminds me of Rwanda and Darfur.
2. Juliana Frink is Dick’s Most Interesting Heroine
Well she’s not exactly a “heroine” considering some of the choices she makes in the book. But many of Dick’s later books depict female characters as nothing more than sexual partners – or objects of desire – for the male protagonists. Juliana has affairs with many men but it’s by her choice and from her perspective. She is the only character who sets off on a journey to find the titular character and it’s her alone who finds out the “truth” about Germany and Japan’s “victory” during World War 2. Plus she’s a judo instructor who can take care of herself and who saves the life of Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
3. It’s Not “Trippy”
Or as The Verge‘s Adi Robertson puts it, “one of Dick’s less mind-bending books”. Many a complaint has been made from filmmakers that his novels are hard to film – don’t expect a film adaptation of Ubik anytime soon – while those that have been successful, had to take a few liberties with the source material. But The Man In the High Castle is an easy read. It’s so clear and concise in its writing and worldbuilding, it’s hard to believe that it came from the same mind as A Scanner Darkly. However, the only “mind-bending” parts are Mr. Tagomi’s “vision” of a victorious US and the confusing ending… yet the story still fascinates and intrigues.
4. Why The Grasshopper Lies Heavy?
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the title of a best-selling (but banned) book-within-a book that describes in detail what the world would be like if the Allied Powers won World War 2. Except the outcome is very different from our timeline. In the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, there’s Cold War tensions between Britain and the US, not Russia. Another book that’s popular among characters in TMITHC is the I-Ching, which is used for advice on everyday decisions. But what made The Grasshopper Lies Heavy stand out to me is that the title is taken from a passage in the Bible – Ecclesiastes 12: 5 which reads: “the grasshopper shall be a burden”. We have no other evidence if the Bible is still read or even tolerated in the victorious Axis Powers timeline. What’s more peculiar is that the I-Ching “wrote” The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Does this mean that the Bible is the go-to book for advice in that other timeline?
But back to the choice of title. When one reads all of Ecclesiastes chapter 12, the author is talking about, in poetic terms, the physical burdens of old age. Some other Bible translations say “the grasshopper drags itself along”, “a white-haired, withered old man, dragging himself along” and “the grasshopper is heavy with food”. So why did Dick choose this scripture as a title for a book about a Cold War between Britain and the US? Do the superpowers “drag themselves” to destruction? Which brings me to my last thought.
5. What Could’ve Been
Philip K. Dick died in 1982. He expressed a desire to write a sequel to The Man In The High Castle but never got around to it because he couldn’t face doing anymore research on the Holocaust. But he didn’t have to. The sequel hook is right there in the novel. Juliana tells Hawthorne that his book showed “a way out”. What if the sequel was about her finding a way out of her timeline and into the timeline described in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy? Dick could show us an America where, because of cold war tensions, there was never a “British Invasion” in music and rock n roll is very different. Or maybe the US never got involved in the Vietnam War, therefore no anti-war movement or counterculture. The possibilities are endless.
And as for the title of this sequel? It’s staring us right in the face.
Those are my 5 thoughts on The Man In The High Castle. What’re yours?